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Student Blog: A Recap of the Dramatists Guild's Young Playwrights Professional Development Intensive

All about working in the theatre industry as a playwright!

By: Jul. 08, 2024
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At International Thespian Festival, which I attended this past week, I had the opportunity to participate in a young playwrights professional development intensive hosted by the Dramatists Guild. This experience not only expanded my understanding of the business side of playwriting but also inspired me creatively in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The Dramatists Guild, known for its commitment to supporting playwrights, organized a workshop for the festival that was both enlightening and empowering. The session covered a wide range of topics, from the business side of writing to the creative process. We had the privilege of hearing from two experienced playwrights who shared their knowledge and personal experiences.

One of the most impactful lessons I learned is that to be a writer is to start your own business. We are equal to publishers and producers, and it’s crucial to consider the power dynamic in these relationships. Ty Young, one of the speakers, emphasized this point humorously by saying, “The last person who told me my writing was just a hobby, I divorced.” Writers are cultural pacemakers, and we make ourselves professional by taking our business seriously. In theatre, since writers are not employed by studios, we own all intellectual property. This means that the right of first refusal is between writers and producers, and we should always negotiate terms that protect our rights and interests. A key takeaway was understanding that you cannot copyright an idea, only the tangible expression of that idea. There are no royalties for actors, directors, or dramaturgs who contribute informally. Moreover, book writers, composers, and lyricists define the lines between their work, ensuring clarity in their collaborations.

We also delved into subsidiary rights, learning that we are not obligated to grant any portion of our revenue to any third party who is not a co-author. Producers must earn the “world premiere” title, and it’s important to negotiate local or state premieres if needed. The first title should not be wasted on the wrong production; it should have all the elements of a high-quality performance, including sets, lights, costumes, equity actors, billing, compensation, public performances, a press run, and full marketing. A theatre’s job is to add value to our intellectual property. Licensing deals are a business decision on our part, and every contract we sign sets a precedent for that company’s future licensors. We are entitled to receive royalties when our work is produced, and we should always seek lodging, travel, and rehearsal compensation for new works. Another interesting point was that the federal government considers writers to be independent contractors like Lyft drivers, so we legally can’t unionize. This means we need to be even more vigilant about our rights and compensation.

We should not rush to get our work published but rather focus on getting it licensed. Don Zolidis, for example, has had more performances of his work than any other writer without a single Broadway performance. The Dramatists Guild has local representatives with sample contracts and knowledge of local going licensing rates. Our name is a form of compensation, and we should pick a college that won’t censor our work. It’s also essential to be intentional with the flexibility of our casting and understand that we don’t need to know everything immediately; we learn as we go. The IRS doesn’t care about taxes until a single theatre pays us more than $600 in a fiscal year, so it’s important to keep track of our earnings. We shouldn’t think about the business side of things until the creative side is done.

Finding a playwriting mentor and knowing that we have the right to question, push back, and negotiate are also crucial aspects of our development. One of the most valuable pieces of advice was always telling producers that we’re going to send our contract to our lawyer, even if we don’t have one. Our non-negotiable dealbreakers may change over time and from piece to piece, so it’s important to identify what they are for each project.

This intensive significantly influenced my approach to playwriting. I learned that no story is as interesting as the characters who tell it and that 90% of writing is thinking. Writing down the ideas that won’t leave my mind and setting false deadlines to help finish plays were practical tips that I found incredibly useful. In rehearsal, there is no difference between business and artistic decisions, and when seeing theatre, it’s essential to be intentional about acknowledging what we do and don’t like about a piece and why. These insights have not only shaped my current projects but will also guide my future endeavors in playwriting. Overall, the young playwrights professional development intensive hosted by the Dramatists Guild at the International Thespian Festival was a transformative experience. It provided me with valuable knowledge, practical skills, and a renewed sense of purpose in my writing journey. I highly encourage other young playwrights to seek out similar opportunities to learn, grow, and connect with the theatre community.


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